The best books about animals and us

The Books I Picked & Why

Black Beauty

By Anna Sewell, Kristen Guest

Book cover of Black Beauty

Why this book?

This is one of the earliest books I remember reading as a child – first in an abridged version (I still remember the illustrations) and then the full text when I was older. It’s an unforgettable classic story inspired by Anna Sewell’s compassion for horses and her despair at the cruelties inflicted on them in Victorian London. We follow Black Beauty from his birth to his old age, as he belongs to various owners and is treated kindly or neglectfully depending on their character and circumstances. Along the way we get to know other horses too, especially proud Ginger and the friendly pony Merrylegs. Poor Ginger’s fate still makes me cry.

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A Street Dog Named Pup

By Gill Lewis

Book cover of A Street Dog Named Pup

Why this book?

Many people, including me, are describing this as a modern classic, a Black Beauty for dogs, and for our age. When he’s cruelly dumped on a London street and left to fend for himself, Pup, a German Shepherd cross, teams up with other homeless dogs and learns survival skills, confronting many dangers. Through the various dogs in this group and their stories, Gill Lewis raises various issues about dog-owning and breeding: abandonment, puppy-farming, and the deliberate selective breeding of flat-faced dogs that leads to breathing problems. Pup even gets reluctantly involved in the horrors of organised dog-fighting. It’s practically guaranteed to keep you hooked.  

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The Song that Sings Us

By Nicola Davies

Book cover of The Song that Sings Us

Why this book?

This is an epic adventure story with a strong environmental theme, set in an alternative world. A harsh government, the Automators, trains citizens to think of the whole natural world – animals, plants, everything – as theirs to use and exploit. Set against them is a group of specially gifted people, the Listeners, who can tune in to animal minds and share their thoughts. But this ability is a dangerous one, as anyone found to be a Listener can be imprisoned and brainwashed. Harlon, Ash, Zeno, and their mother are part of a resistance group called Green Thorn, which tunes into an unseen network that connects all living things. This is an exciting story that’s also moving and poetic – and the story will continue!

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Bambi: A Life in the Woods

By Felix Salten, Richard Cowdrey

Book cover of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Why this book?

If you know the Disney film rather than Felix Salten’s novel, you may be surprised by this, the original story – the film is far better-known. It encourages us to empathise with animals and to see humans from their point of view – and most humans don’t come out of it well, shooting and maiming wild animals for sport, spreading terror throughout the forest in which Bambi, the deer, is born.  After the loss of his mother and another tragic episode in which his cousin, Gobi, is betrayed, Bambi learns to survive, but also to fear humankind. This is another book I read as a child and recently revisited – finding it just as moving and sometimes harrowing as I did at the age of ten.

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Diary of a Young Naturalist

By Dara McAnulty

Book cover of Diary of a Young Naturalist

Why this book?

Dara McAnulty is a young naturalist from Northern Ireland. He is autistic and writes about how he was badly bullied at school because of that. He has always found joy and comfort in the natural world, and this is a journal of his fifteenth year, recording outings to woodlands, coasts, and mountains. He writes so vividly, not only about the birds and other creatures he sees but also about the exhilaration of being in wild places. This was his first book, and I’m sure there will be many more from this gifted young writer.

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